I have been exploring texture for some time, and I enjoy the challenges associated with developing and incorporating creativity and personality into forms. The texture often becomes the focal point, shifting the emphasis away from form, and placing my work precariously on the line between functional and sculptural.
As I work on these vessels, I often think of the potential for glaze to react with surface texture. Wood firing for the last three years has given me an awareness of places for ash to land and take hold, providing opportunities for the flames to interact with an object, directly impacting and enhancing the surface.
When texturing a piece, I often start at an early wet stage by manipulating the surface of the clay and creating multiple strata to see what’s revealed, allowing that depth to contrast with what emerges as raised textural elements. For this process, I use the clay that the existing form provides and simply displace it. For this piece, we’re taking this a step further by adding coils to enhance surface texture, providing more material to manipulate.
This form is derived from the Korean/Japanese tsubo storage jar. I find myself drawn to the tsubo form and search for examples of variations of these fascinating jars. The form allows for a straightforward approach to execution, or an open interpretation with opportunities for creativity and expression.
The first step is to create a sketch to determine the final shape you want to achieve. This will dictate the way you throw the base cylinder and where to leave your cylinders thicker, etc.
This tsubo form is thrown in two parts. Using about 9 pounds of clay for the lower piece and 7–8 pounds for the top, throw two cylinders that will make up the body of the jar. When throwing the cylinders, think about the role of each section in the overall piece. Where does it need to be strong? How much will the different areas expand? The final joined cylinder should be relatively narrow and tall, so thinking ahead about how the piece will later be opened and expanded is important. The top of each individual cylinder should have some real thickness, as once they are joined, the cylinder tops become the center of the form and will thin out quite a bit as the piece is expanded in diameter. Keep in mind, the lower cylinder needs to be able to support the addition of the top cylinder and hold up to the stress of this process.
In order to prepare the cylinders to be merged together, form a V-shaped groove into the rim of the lower cylinder, and a V-shaped point to the rim of the upper cylinder (1). Be sure the top of each cylinder is the same diameter (2). When the cylinders are joined together, smooth the seam with a firm rib (3). The resulting form should be tall and narrow with the middle portion bulging out slightly.
Tip: Keep in mind that the paddling and opening process used to refine the form will put a lot of demand on the clay body. If your clay is too soft, you could have issues with slumping and distorting. If the clay is too hard, or unevenly dry, problems could occur with structural cracking as the piece is expanded.
Beginning the Texturing Process
Begin the texturing process by adding coils to the cylinder. Roll out your coils to about ⅜–½ inch thick. You’ll need a lot of coil pieces, so don’t hold back. Roll out longer coils, then cut them to a usable size (4). The final length of the coils used depends on your paddle. Identify the paddle you’ll use for the texturing step; choose one with a pretty sharp edge, as it will be the most effective. My paddle is a piece of scrap hardwood plywood that’s about 4 inches wide with sharp edges, which I find works very well for this process.
Cut the coils so they are a good ½ inch longer than the width of your paddle. I would start with about 50 coils, depending on the height and width of your cylinder.
Adding the Coils
Once your coils are cut to size, begin to add them vertically to the cylinder starting from the base. Lightly score, wet with thin slip, and apply your first coil piece vertically so the bottom of the coil touches your bat (5). Press the coil lightly into the cylinder to create a good connection.
Apply the coils all around the base of the cylinder in the same fashion so there is ¾–1 inch between each coil. Once the first row is done, move up to the next row. Position one coil vertically between two of the coils you’ve already applied, so it sits above the completed row, but overlaps slightly (6). I recommend scoring a very light line around the cylinder where the top of this coil sits to help align the row. Repeat all the way around, working your way to the top of the cylinder. If you end up with a short row, cut the coils down as needed and plan on paddling that row with a smaller paddle. Leave about ¾ inch at the top of the cylinder free of the coils. You’ll use this surface for shaping later on.
Integrating the Coils
In order to ensure the coils stay attached to the pot’s surface during paddling, secure each coil using a wooden tool and a rib. Use the narrow wooden tool to blend the end of each coil into the cylinder body (7) by pushing the very end of the coil down. Then, using the shorter side of a wooden rib, do the same with the sides of the coils, working them down into the cylinder body (8). There’s no need to smooth out your markings—these will add texture to the end result (9).
Now it’s time to create the texture. While doing this, leave the pot on the wheel, lightly hold the top of the cylinder with your left hand, paddling with your right. Paddle along the surface of the cylinder, building/moving the clay into each coil, and then moving the coil slightly along the surface (10). This works out best if you can keep your wheel head fairly still. Hold your paddle so it’s vertical in your hand, striking the surface just to the left of one of the coils along the base with the edge of the paddle rather than the flat face. Your paddle should sit right along the throwing surface, so you paddle down to the bottom of the piece. The first strike may just make a mark, so continue paddling to the left toward the next coil. As mentioned earlier, you want to paddle along the surface, moving the surface of the clay. Keep going, paddling into the adjacent coil and then moving the coil slightly to the left, but not too much as you will need to squeeze a paddle into that spot when you get back to that point to paddle the last coil in the row.
Move to the next coil and do this again, continuing all the way around and then up the cylinder, row by row (11). The closer you get to the top, the firmer you’ll want to hold the top of the cylinder so it doesn’t move too far off-center. When paddling is completed, I generally try to re-center if needed, by pushing the cylinder onto center and rounding the mouth.
Note: The paddling instructions are for someone who’s right handed. Work in the opposite way if you’re left handed.
For this step, you’ll need a fan, and if desired, a hand-held torch. The intention of the drying phase is to develop a dry(ish) skin on the exterior of the piece to amplify the tearing/stretching of the clay surface as the piece is opened up on the wheel. This can be done with a fan or a hand-held torch in conjunction with a fan. Drying time depends on the size and thickness of the piece, as well as how wet your clay is. This step can be a little tricky. Too much drying, and the piece may crack when it’s expanded. Too little, and it won’t really have any effect. Start with 20 minutes of drying in front of a fan, keeping your piece turning slowly on the wheel. You want to dry the piece uniformly or it won’t open evenly. Moisten the top lip of the cylinder to keep it damp during this process. Check the surface every few minutes while you have the fan on it. Once you feel the surface dry a bit and you start to see some of the clay crumbs become dry, you’re probably done. I’d err on the side of slightly damp the first time around, unless you really want to push the texture.
If you have a torch, work the flame over the piece as evenly as you can, then use a fan to cool the surface. It’s easy to over-dry with a torch, so be careful.
If the mouth of your cylinder is relatively narrow, it helps to keep it wet so it doesn’t catch on your arm. You will only be shaping from the inside of the piece due to the texture. Starting with a larger wooden rib, begin to apply pressure by pushing out from the inside. Work the rib up the cylinder, pushing out more where your clay is thickest and where you want to achieve the largest diameter. Work the rib evenly, don’t push too hard in any one spot, and try to work it up and down the cylinder so you’re opening the whole piece together (12). Take your time at this stage.
Remember the portion at the top/mouth that you left free of coil pieces? Hold one or two fingers on the outside of that area as you’re opening to help steady the vessel and counter the pressure you’re applying to the interior wall (see 12). This should help keep the mouth from opening too much and will aid in keeping your piece on center.
Once you start to feel the texture from the inside and it’s hard to control the wood rib, switch to a medium-stiff rib. This will help you continue the opening process and you won’t be as affected by the texture. Switch to the soft rib when you encounter challenges with the medium-stiff rib. As this becomes more challenging, simply stop the wheel and continue by pulling the rib in an upward motion on the inside of your vessel. Work evenly, turning the piece after every pull of the rib to work your way around. This allows for a controlled method of opening and shaping the piece (13).
Tip: The opening process reveals the weak points in your texture, which sometimes become tears and holes. Sometimes I leave these, and sometimes I patch them with a flat pancake of clay to add strength to that area. I make the addition if it’s needed structurally, or if it has aesthetic benefits.
Adding the Collar
To add the collar, you may need to slightly dry the piece if the clay is still pretty moist. Roll out a coil that’s around an inch in diameter, more if desired, per your preferred result. Place the coil around the rim and cut it to the appropriate size (14). I generally cut the ends at an angle and work them together to be as seamless as possible. Score and slip the rim, then attach the coil. Use a blunt tool and/or your hands to work the lower part of the coil down onto the rim.
Once well attached, moisten the coil and throw or shape as desired (15). Make sure to fully merge the coil to the jar as you’re shaping so it’s part of the jar both functionally and aesthetically (16).
The general techniques used for this piece can be applied to a variety of markings, textures, and shapes. My hope is that you’ll give this a try, exploring different textures, techniques, and forms to see where this might take you.
Layne Peters is an owner/partner of a graphic design firm in Columbus, Ohio, and he shows his ceramic work nationally at various juried shows. Learn more at LaynePetersCeramics.com and on Instagram @thrown_and_altered.